Jonathan Muskat

What does a successful Chagei Tishrei season look like?

We are done with another season of Chagei Tishrei. I asked someone how the Chagei Tishrei were and he told me that they were exhilarating and exhausting. Almost everyone with whom I spoke felt that the Chagei Tishrei were exhausting, especially this year with the Yamim Tovim falling out during the week. Over the past few weeks, almost every day was either Yom Tov, Shabbat, Erev Yom Tov or Erev Shabbat.  Shul and more shul and more shul. Food and more food and more food. How can we make Chagei Tishrei less exhausting? It’s a great question and an important question, but not the question that I will address today. I am interested in the second question. I am interested in the question about exhilaration. Did we find the Chagei Tishrei exhilarating? Do we feel good about these past few weeks? Or more precisely, what are the indications of a successful Chagei Tishrei season?

I think that one indication of a successful Chagei Tishrei season is whether we strengthened our relationships with our families and friends.  It is part of the human condition to yearn for strong, meaningful relationships.  God Himself stated in Parshat Breishit, “Lo tov yehot ha’adam levado,” that it is not good for man to be all alone.  We naturally desire companionship.  Even as Torah committed Jews, we value companionship.  God tells us, “V’nikdashti b’toch Bnei Yisrael,” that God should be sanctified in a community.  The Torah’s message to us is to go out, create and develop real relationships.  We spent a lot of time over the chagim creating memories with family and close friends that will stay with us forever.  Meaningful memories like a family Rosh Hashana meal with all the festive simanim or a powerful Yom Kippur neila davening next to a parent or close friend or the time you hung up Sukkah decorations that you made in school with a parent or the annual Sukkot hop with friends.   These memories nurture and fortify these relationships which are so necessary in our lives.

Another indication of a successful Chagei Tishrei season is whether we had authentic, meaningful ritual experiences.  Ritual experiences can be so powerful.  Mr. DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, the author of “How God Works:  The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion,” wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal a few months ago entitled, “Does Religion Make People More Ethical?”  The article cited two studies that found that identifying with a religion does not impact virtue, but engaging in religious practice does.   Furthermore, people who live their faith, regularly go to services and engage in their religion’s rituals tend to live longer, healthier and happier lives.

There is a power to authentic ritual, to engaging in time-honored traditions that are hundreds and sometimes thousands of years old.  However, with the passage of time, some rituals may appear to be outdated and/or not as relevant or meaningful to a new generation.  There is often a tension between authenticity and meaning.  If it’s authentic and part of a time-honored tradition, then there is power to that fact, but it may not feel meaningful.  If changes to the tradition are adapted, then the ritual may feel more meaningful, but there is often a feeling that the ritual does not feel real.

I have noticed this authenticity/meaningfulness tension regarding two issues that arise during the Chagei Tishrei season.  First, there has been increased tension between authenticity and meaningfulness of Yamim Noraim davening.  Recently, there has been a trend in many shuls to modernize many of the classic Yamim Noraim tunes.  Additionally, communal singing has replaced much responsive recitation of the tefillot.  How do we create the appropriate balance between authenticity and meaningfulness here?

Shul members of an older generation need to understand that members of the newer generation are more interested in communal singing than responsive recitation of piyyutim and they are open to new melodies that reflect the nature of the piyyut.  An example is Yishai Ribo’s “Ochilah lakel.”  Telling a member of the newer generation that a particular tune is powerful and meaningful simply because it has been sung for a few hundred years may not resonate with this individual if he or she does not find the tune compelling.  At the same time, if a ba’al tefilla sings new, modern tunes to the Yamim Noraim davening, they need to be authentic.    The ba’al tefilla must understand the meaning of the words of the tefillot that he leads so that his tunes reflect the appropriate mood that must accompany each tefilla.  Additionally, the ba’al tefilla must be aware that it is difficult to change tunes that have been sung in the community for many years, so any changes should be made in a manner that will not appear to be insensitive to the history of the particular community that he leads.  Creating a Yamim Noraim davening in a manner that is both authentic and meaningful is key to a successful Yamim Noraim.

I have also noticed this tension between authenticity and meaningfulness when it comes to women’s participation in Simchat Torah festivities.  On the one hand, there is a desire to maintain an authentic, time-honored tradition about religious practices on Simchat Torah.  On the other hand, there is a sincere desire to engage every segment of our community to find meaning in the holiday, and many women in the modern era do not find meaning in simply watching others dance or watching others dance with a Torah.  Hence, these two values can be in tension.  How do we resolve the tension?  Different people can define what authenticity looks like regarding Simchat Torah ritual.  For me, a ritual can be authentic even if it is an innovation if it reflects the essence of our Torah values, and a mainstream posek of first rank is qualified to make such a determination.  Once we determine that a particular innovation is authentic, then we must ask whether the innovation will be meaningful and there are actually two parts to that question.  First, will the particular innovation create a stronger spiritual feeling for those who practice this ritual and two, will the innovation divide the community such that any spiritual benefit of the innovation will be lost because of the fighting and division that is created by the innovation?  Creating a Simchat Torah experience for women in a manner that is both authentic and meaningful is challenging but potentially very rewarding.

How were your Chagei Tishrei?  I’m sure that they were exhausting, but were they exhilarating?  Did you use them as an opportunity to create timeless memories while strengthening your relationship with family and close friends?  Did you participate in ritual experiences that were both authentic and meaningful?  And if you did, then maybe the Chagei Tishrei season can serve as a guide for an entire year of relationships and authentic, meaningful ritual experiences that will be nothing short of exhilarating.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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